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History of the United States

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    The United States of America was founded in 1776 from British colonies along the Atlantic Coast of North America. In 1775 frustration with various British crown practices had led to revolt by colonists in Massachusetts. The next year, representatives of thirteen of the British colonies in North America met in Philadelphia and declared their independence in a remarkable document, the Declaration of Independence, primarily authored by Thomas Jefferson. With the help of their French allies they were eventually able to win the American Revolutionary War against Great Britain, settled by the Treaty of Paris (1783). Until 1789, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation. 

    In 1789 the Constitution of the United States was adopted, and George Washington was elected the first President. Congress passed the first of many laws organizing the government. Despite a desire on the part of Washington to remain isolationist, (as detailed in his farewell address), the United States has a rich diplomatic history. 

    War of 1812

    In 1812, the United states entered a second war with the British Empire, known as the War of 1812. It was caused in large part by the British policy of Impressment (the forcible seizure of American seamen for service in the British Royal Navy)and the British blocking of French seaports where Americans desired to carry on trade. Though the British held the upper hand in most engagements, several of the battles entered the American mythos -- including the Battle of New Orleans (1815), when General Andrew Jackson handed the British one of the worst defeats in their history. Ironically, the battle was fought two weeks after the peace Treaty of Ghent, which ended the hostilities, and restored pre-war conditions. 

    Westward Expansion

    During the 19th century the country expanded its territory greatly through two major acquisitions. In 1802, the size of the country doubled with the Louisiana Purchase, when France sold all of its territories west of the Mississippi River to the United States. The Lewis and Clark expedition quickly explored the north western territories from the Mississippi to the Pacific. The nation's territory continued to expand by the annexation of Texas, which led to the Mexican-American War, where the United States obtained territory in the southwest from Mexico. The Oregon territory was purchased from Great Britain, Alaska from Russia, and the kingdom of Hawaii was annexed at the end of the century, completing the present territory of the United States. 

    Westward expansion by official acts of the United States Government was accompanied by the western (and northern in the case of New England) movement of settlers on and beyond The Frontier. Daniel Boone was one frontiersman who pioneered the settlement of Kentucky. This pattern was followed throughout the West as men traded with the Indians, trapped fur, and explored. Skilled fighters and hunters, these Mountain Men in small groups trapped beaver throughout the Rocky Mountains. After the demise of the Fur Trade they established trading posts throughout the west, continuing trade with the Indians, and serving the western migration of settlers to Utah, Oregon and California. 

    Major events in the western movement of the American people were The Homestead Act, a law by which, for a nominal price, a settler was given title to land to farm; the opening of the Northwest Territory to settlement; The Texas Revolution; the opening of the Oregon Trail; the Mormon Emigration to Utah in 1846-7; The California gold rush of 1849; the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859; and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad May 10, 1869. 

    The western movie, one of the classic American film genres, is situated in this era. 

    The Civil War

    In response to the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860, most of the Southern states seceded from the Union, forming the Confederate States of America. The American Civil War ensued. U. S. military leadership was mediocre, at first, compared to that of Confederate generals, particularly Robert E. Lee. But the Union government managed to invade the Southern states, and defeat the Confederate army, by means of an overwhelming advantage in materials and number of soldiers, and the gradual appearance of skilled generals like Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. 

    The destructiveness of the Union invasion and defeat of the South, followed by exploitive economic policies in the defeated region after the war, caused lasting bitterness among Southerners toward the U.S. government. This failure of the Federal government to effectively reunite the country contributed to the government's failure for many decades to enforce the Civil Rights of the formerly enslaved African-Americans in the South. 

    The Gilded Age and the Imperial Republic 

    The end of the 19th century ushered in a period of the expansion of New Imperialism expansion, pushing the USA on to the World stage: 
    • 1893 Queen Liliuokalani deposed by an American coup; leading to the annexation of Hawaii to USA in 1898. 
    • 1898 Spanish-American War the USA gained control of the Spanish colonies of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. 
    • 1903 intervention in Colombia to achieve the independence of Panama and to fetch the zone to build the canal. 
    American expansionism, of course, had roots in domestic concerns and economics, as in other newly industrializing nations. The United States was a newly industrializing nation, like Germany, where investments overall assisted and accelerated economic progress, aiding the creation of costly infrastructure, such as railways and other public works. The findings of the 1890 Census, however, popularized by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in his paper entitled ?The Significance of the Frontier in American History?, contributed to fears of dwindling natural resources . The Panic of 1893 and the ensuing depression also led some businessmen and politicians to come to the same conclusion as statesmen such as Leopold II of Belgium, Jules Ferry, Benjamin Disraeli, Jospeh Chamberlain, and Francesco Crispi had formulated nearly a generation earlier-? that industry had apparently over-expanded, producing more goods than domestic consumers could buy. 

    Like the Long Depression in Europe, which bred doubts regarding growing strength of political resistance of world capitalism, the main features of this depression included deflation, rural decline, and unemployment (indicative of under-consumption), which aggravated the bitter social protests of the Gilded Age?- the Populist movement, the free-silver crusade, and violent labor disputes such as the Pullman Strike. Similarly, the post-1873 in Europe period saw a reemergence of far more militant working-class organization and cycles of large strikes. In fact, the rapid turn to imperialism in the late nineteenth century can be correlated with cyclically spaced economic depressions that adversely affected many elite groups. Like the Long Depression, an era of increasing unemployment and deflated prices for manufactured goods, the Panic of 1893 contributed to fierce competition over markets in the growing ?spheres of influence? of the United States, which tended to overlap with Britain?s?especially in the Pacific and South America. 

    While Germany, the United States, Italy, and other more recently industrialized empires were under relatively less pressure to offload surplus capital than Britain, these nations would resort to protectionism and formal empire, once attacked by adherents to laissez-faire, to usurp Britain?s unfair advantages on international markets . Some politicians, such as Henry Cabot Lodge, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt, advocated a more aggressive foreign policy to pull the United States out of the depression of the second Grover Cleveland Administration, known for a laissez-faire domestic (and foreign) policy that in some ways paralleled the policies of the Gladstonian liberals. By World War I, the rise of US imperialism and militarism, however, would, in effect, save the Allies, the older, more established, and more liberal empires, albeit at a huge cost (literally), from the emergent threat of the absolutist and ?neo-mercantilist? Prussians. 

    Just as the German Reich reacted to depression with the adoption of protective tariff protection in 1879 , so would the United States with the landslide election victory of William McKinley, who had risen to national prominence six years earlier with the passage of the McKinley Tariff of 1890. Britain?s economic threat from the United States, hence, was (at the time at least) intensified by America?s rise as a great military and political power after the Civil War, its adoption of such protective tariff protection, its acquisition of a colonial empire in 1898, and its building of a powerful navy?the Great White Fleet?under the slain McKinley?s more ?big stick?, racist, and militarist successor, Theodore Roosevelt. This course of events, ushered in by the Second Industrial Revolution?paralleled a similar trend in Germany, which emerged as a potential military power after its own unification, its adoption of a tariff in 1879, its acquisition of a colonial empire in 1884-85, and its building of a powerful navy after 1898. On the Pacific, since the Meiji Restoration, Japan?s development followed a similar pattern, following the Western lead in industrialization and militarism, enabling it to gain a foothold or ?sphere of influence? in Qing China. Although US capital investments within the Philippines and Puerto Rico were relatively small (figures that would seemingly detract from the broader economic implications on first glance), these colonies were strategic outposts for expanding trade with Asia, particularly China and Latin America, enabling the United States to reap the benefit of China?s ?Open Door? and Dollar Diplomacy under Taft?-a sort of US variant of Britain?s informal colonialism. Such developments, whether in Germany, Japan or in the United States, hence disseminated fears that formal imperialism was necessary for Britain because of its relative decline of the British share of the world?s export trade. Imperialism for the United States, however, marked by the reaffirmation of the Monroe Doctrine (formalized by the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904), would thus herald the trend of the United States replacing Britain as the predominant ?investor? in Latin America?a process largely completed by the end of the Great War. 

    World War I

    During the 20th century the U.S. was involved in two World Wars. Firmly maintaining neutrality when World War I began in 1914, the United States entered the war after the RMS Lusitania, a British ship carrying many American passengers, was sunk by German submarines. With American help, Great Britain, France and Italy won the war, and imposed severe economic penalties on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles. Despite President Woodrow Wilson's calls for agreeable terms, the economic impact of the reparations mandated by the Treaty were severe. The misery they helped produce in Germany helped Adolf Hitler to seize power in Germany in 1933. The United States Senate did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles; instead, the United States signed separate peace treaties with Germany and her allies. 

    Disillusioned by the failure of the war to achieve the high ideals promised by President Woodrow Wilson, the American people chose Isolationism: they turned their attention inward, away from international relations and solely toward domestic affairs. 

    The Roaring 20s

    During most of the 1920s the United States enjoyed a period of unbalanced prosperity: prices for agricultural commodities and wages fell at the end of the war while new industries (radio, movies, automobiles, and chemicals) flourished. The unevenness was also geographic: the standard of living in rural areas fell increasingly behind that of urban and suburban areas which saw dramatic improvements in housing and urban planning. The boom was reflected by the extension of credit to a dangerous degree, including in the Stock Market, which rose to dangerously inflated levels. 

    In 1920, the manufacture, sale, import and export of alcohol was prohibited by an amendment to the constitution in order to alleviate various social problems. It was enacted through the Volstead Act. Prohibition ended in 1933 by another change to the constitution; it is considered to have been a failure by most: consumption of alcohol did not decrease markedly while organized crime was strengthened. But it did represent the first instance of a constitutional amendment that directly regulated social activity. The 18th Amendment, then, represented the growing strength of the state in the early 20th century. 

    The Great Depression

    The Stock Market crash in 1929 and the ensuing economic depression have been endlessly debated, often along ideological lines. 

    A fundamental misdistribution of purchasing power might have been the Depression?s main contributing factor. As industrial and agricultural production increased, the proportion of the profits going to farmers, factory workers, and other potential consumers was far too small to create a market for goods that they were producing. Even in 1929, after nearly a decade of economic growth, more than half the families in America lived on the edge or below the subsistence level?too poor to share in the great consumer boom of the 1920s, too poor to buy the cars and houses and other goods the industrial economy was producing, too poor in many cases to buy even the adequate food and shelter for themselves. As long as corporations had continue to expand their capital facilities (their factories, warehouses, heavy equipment, and other investments), the economy had flourished. By the end of the 1920s, however, capital investments had created more plant space than could be profitably used, and factories were pouring out more goods than consumers could purchase. 

    The nation?s economy had thus been showing some signs of distress for months before October 1929. Business inventories of all kinds were three times as large as they had been a year before (an indication that the public was not buying products as rapidly as in the past); and other signposts of economic health?freight carloads, industrial production, wholesale prices?were slipping downward. 

    There was also a serious lack of diversification in the American economy of the 1920s. Prosperity had been excessively dependent on a few basic industries, notably construction and automobiles; in the late 1920s, those industries began to decline. Between 1926 and 1929, expenditures on construction fell from $11 billion to under $9 billion. Automobile sales began to decline somewhat later, but in the first nine months of 1929 they declined by more than one third. Once these two crucial industries began to weaken, there was not enough strength in other sectors of the economy to take up the slack. 

    The limited amount of reliable economic information suggests that construction and housing stagnated after 1926, joining declines in the agriculture, mining, and petroleum industries. In all of these overproduction dragged down prices and profits. Wages did not rise fast enough to enable consumers to purchase all the new homes and home products available. Foreign trade was constrained by growing protectionism in the industrialized world. The Stock Market Crash drained away remaining consumer confidence and, more importantly, the confidence of financial institutions. They were extremely reluctant to invest. Thus, the economy sank into a severe depression, referred to by Americans as the "Great Depression", marked by punishing levels of unemployment, negligible investment, and falling prices and wages. 

    In response to the depression, Congress and the Hoover administration enacted a somewhat isolationist Smoot-Hawley tariff and, with its public works acts, tried to fix prices for farmers, and enacted a public works program based on the belief that the federal government was obliged to maintain high employment levels. These efforts were unprecedented, but the Depression overwhelmed them: indices of prices, profits, production, and unemployment worsened. 

    The New Deal

    With millions unemployed, political ferment and discontent greatly increased among the working classes. An unsympathetic or repressive response from the U.S. government might well have sparked a socialist uprising, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected in 1932, implemented a number of Keynesian programs to aid the poor and unemployed. These included a variety of make-work agencies, as well as agencies to improve the functioning of industries. For example, the Agricultural Adjustment initiated the use of federal subsides to reduce farm production and drive up prices, relieving the woebegone agricultural sector. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) granted significant rights to labor unions and gave the federal government sweeping regulatory powers. Roosevelt skillfully improved the appeal of these programs to the American people, by refusing to label them "Socialist", or even admit that they were. He also contributed to the future stability of the economy by instituting new regulations in business, particularly banking. Over the past twenty years, historians have de-emphasized the "revolutionary" legislation of the Roosevelt administration, seeing instead a logical outgrowth of the Hoover administration. 

    The Supreme Court did not look favorably on the New Deal. The NIRA, for instance, was ruled unconstitutional. Roosevelt responded to this in 1937 by trying to get Congress to increase the size of the Supreme Court from the long-established number of nine to fifteen. The president would then appoint six new justices with judicial philosophies favorable to his previous actions. The scheme found few supporters, and served only to decrease the president's popularity. Also in 1937, there was a brief but severe "Roosevelt recession," which decreased economic activity to 1933 levels, but the economy soon bounced back and continued its recovery. This growth was slow, until World War II brought a new series of dramatic changes that again reshaped the economy. 

    World War II

    Isolationist sentiment in America had ebbed, but the United States at first declined to enter the war, limiting itself to giving supplies and weapons to Great Britain, China, and the Soviet Union. American feeling changed drastically with the sudden Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the United States quickly joined the British-Soviet alliance against Japan, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, known as the "Axis Alliance". Even with American participation, it took nearly four more years to defeat Germany and Japan. Though the Soviet Union suffered far more casualties than its allies, America's active involvement in the war was vital to preventing an eventual Axis victory. World War II (1941-1945)

    Origins of the Cold War

    Stalin assumed that the capitalist camp would soon resume its internal rivalry over colonies and trade. Economic advisers such as Eugen Varga predicted a postwar crisis of overproduction in capitalist countries which would culminate by 1947-1948 in another great depression. 

    Trends in federal expenditure in the United States reinforced Stalin?s expectations. By this time, business had been reinforced by government expenditures as a consequence of depression and the war. Between 1929 and 1933 unemployment soared from 3 percent of the workforce to 25 percent, while manufacturing output collapsed by one-third. Franklin Roosevelt?s New Deal programs tried to stimulate demand and provide work and relief for the impoverished through increased government spending. The philosophy behind this was belatedly provided by the British economist John Maynard Keynes. Between 1933 and 1939, federal expenditure tripled, and Roosevelt?s critics charged that he was turning America into a socialist state. But the cost of the New Deal pales in comparison with World War II. In 1939, federal expenditure was $9 million; it had increased tenfold by 1945. And war spending financially cured the depression, pulling unemployment down from 14 percent in 1940 to less than 2 percent in 1943 as the labor force grew by ten million. The war economy was not so much a triumph of free enterprise as the result of government/business sectionalism, of government bankrolling business. 

    What would be the result of massive postwar demilitarization? Industrial demand, for one, would plummet. Given the trend in federal expenditure, the looked to be heading toward a precipitous contraction. Stalin thus assumed that the Americans would need to offer him economic aid, need find any outlet for massive capital investments just to maintain the wartime industrial production that brought the US out of the Great Depression. Thus, the prospects of an Anglo-American front against him seemed slim. 

    The Cold War and the Vietnam Quagmire

    The Vietnam War was in many ways a direct successor to the French Indochina War, fought to maintain control of their colony in Indochina against an independence movement led by Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh. After the Vietnamese communist forces, or Viet Minh, defeated the French colonial army at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the colony was granted independence. According to the ensuing Geneva settlement, Vietnam was partitioned, ostensibly temporarily, into a communist North and a non-Communist South. 

    The country was then to be unified under elections that were scheduled to take place in 1956. However the elections were never held. The RVN government of President Diem, with the support of US President Eisenhower, cancelled the elections because they feared that Ho Chi Minh would win. 

    In response to the failure of establishing unifying elections, the National Liberation Front (NLF or Viet Cong) was formed as a guerrilla movement in opposition to the South Vietnamese government. 

    American involvement in the war was a gradual process. There was never a formal declaration of war, but in 1964 the U.S. Senate did approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave broad support to President Johnson to escalate U.S. involvement in the war. By 1968, over 500,000 troops were stationed there, and the toll of American soldiers killed, as reported every Thursday on the evening news, was over 100 a week. 

    The American public's faith in the "light at the end of the tunnel" was shattered, however, in 1968, when the enemy, supposedly on the verge of collapse, mounted the Tet Offensive. 

    There had been a small movement of opposition to the war within certain quarters of the United States starting in 1964, especially on certain college campuses. This was happening during a time of unprecedented leftist student activism, and of the arrival at college age of the demographically significant "Baby Boomers." World War II ended in 1945, and the Korean conflict ended in 1953; thus most, if not all, of the "Baby Boomers" had never been exposed to war. In addition, the Vietnam War was unprecedented for the intensity of media coverage--it has been called the first television war--as well as for the stridency of opposition to the war by the so-called "New Left." 

    Some Americans opposed the war on moral grounds, seeing it as a destructive war against Vietnamese independence, or as intervention in a foreign civil war; others opposed it because they felt it lacked clear objectives and appeared to be unwinnable. Some anti-war activists were themselves Vietnam Veterans, as evidenced by the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War. 

    In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson began his reelection campaign. A member of his own party, Eugene McCarthy, ran against him for the nomination on an antiwar platform. McCarthy did not win the first primary election in New Hampshire, but he did surprisingly well against an incumbent. The resulting blow to the Johnson campaign, taken together with other factors, led the President to make a surprise announcement in a March 31 televised speech that he was pulling out of the race. He also announced the initiation of the Paris Peace Talks with Vietnam in that speech. 

    Seizing the opportunity caused by Johnson's departure from the race, Robert Kennedy then joined in and ran for the nomination on an antiwar platform. Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, also ran for the nomination, promising to continue to support the South Vietnamese government. 

    Kennedy was assassinated that summer, and McCarthy was unable to overcome Humphrey's support within the party elite. Humphrey won the nomination of his party, and ran against Richard Nixon in the general election. During the campaign, Nixon claimed to have a secret plan to end the war. 

    Nixon was elected President and began his policy of slow disengagement from the war. The goal was to gradually build up the South Vietnamese Army so that it could fight the war on its own. This policy became the cornerstone of the so-called "Nixon Doctrine." As applied to Vietnam, the doctrine was called "Vietnamization." The goal of Vietnamization was to enable the South Vietnamese army to increasingly hold its own against the NLF and the North Vietnamese Army. 

    The morality of US conduct of the war continued to be an issue under the Nixon Presidency. In 1969, it came to light that Lt. William Calley, a platoon Leader in Vietnam, had led a massacre of Vietnamese civilians (including small children) at My Lai a year before. The massacre was only stopped after two American soldiers in a helicopter spotted the carnage and intervened to prevent their fellow Americans from killing any more civilians. Although many were appalled by the wholesale slaughter at My Lai, Calley was given a light sentence after his court-martial in 1970, and was later pardoned by President Nixon. 

    Aside from this massacre, millions of Vietnamese died as a consequence of the Vietnam War. Estimating the number killed in any conflict, however, is extremely difficult. Official records are hard to find or nonexistent and many of those killed were literally blasted to pieces by bombing. It is also difficult to say exactly what counts as a "Vietnam war casualty"; people are still being killed today by unexploded ordinance, particularly cluster bomblets. Environmental effects from chemical agents and the colossal social problems caused by a devastated country with so many dead surely caused many more lives to be shortened. 

    The lowest casualty estimates, based on the now-renounced North Vietnamese statements, are around 1.5 million Vietnamese killed. Vietnam released figures on April 3, 1995 that a total of one million Vietnamese combatants and four million civilians were killed in the war. The accuracy of these figures has generally not been challenged. Around 58,000 US solders also died. 

    The casualties inflicted by the US-backed, Khmer Rouge were even higher. Though adherents to a twisted form of Maoism, the Khmer Rouge were anti-Soviet. In 1970, Nixon ordered a military incursion into Cambodia in order to destroy Viet Cong sanctuaries bordering on South Vietnam. Many feel that the Khmer Rouge would probably not have come to power and killed so many (from 900,000 to 2 million) of their people without the destabilization of the war, particularly of the American bombing campaigns to 'clear out the sanctuaries' in Cambodia. 

    Although Nixon had promised South Vietnam that he would provide military support to them in the event of a crumbling military situation, Congress voted down any further funding of military actions in the region. Nixon was also fighting for his political life in the growing Watergate scandal, so none of the promised military support to defend the South Vietnamese government was forthcoming though economic aid continued although most of the aid was siphoned off by corrupt elements in the South Vietnamese government and little of it actually went to the war effort. The 94th Congress eventually voted for a total cut off of all aid to take effect at the beginning of the 1975-76 financial year (July 1, 1975). 

    The United States unilaterally withdrew its troops from Vietnam in 1973. In early 1975 the North invaded the South and quickly consolidated the country under its control. Saigon was captured on April 30, 1975. North Vietnam united both North and South Vietnam on July 2, 1976 to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Saigon was re-named Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the former president of North Vietnam. 


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